Making friends with God

No friend, no lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness. And by burdening others with these divine expectations, of which we ourselves are often only partially aware, we might inhibit the expression of free friendship and love and evoke instead feelings of inadequacy and weakness. Friendship and love cannot develop in the form of an anxious clinging to each other.

— Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

There are truths we believe but we don’t really understand.

Henri Nouwen’s words have been marked in my book since the first time I read them several years ago. But I have been coming to understand them more deeply since last September. Mostly what I have been coming to understand is how much I have directed my “cravings for unity and wholeness” toward others and how they treat me and speak to me. I have discovered holes in myself that I had been trying to fill with the uncertain kindness and love of others.

Failing that, I turned to a sense – an artificial one – of self-importance and accomplishment, which is just another kind of chasing after praise. I believed that — as Augustine says — our hearts are restless until we find rest in God, but I did not really understand it.

The requirement with finding that sense of unity and wholeness in God is that you have to be well-acquainted with God, which means time devoted to silence and prayer and disciplines of the Spirit. It is not something you can rush through. Ten minutes – or five – with today’s devotion in the Upper Room is not doing it. It is the spiritual equivalent of sending someone a Happy Birthday post on Facebook. You did it. There is even evidence that you thought of the other person. But your life is no deeper for having done it.

As Eugene Peterson has written more than once, pastors of all people are prone to confusing being busy about God-talk and church work with spending actual time with God. Preparing sermons and praying in public and making pastoral calls are good, honest religious work, but they are all on the clock. Friendship with God develops before and after you punch the time clock.

This morning, I was pondering a passage from 1 John when Nouwen’s words came to me.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

The apostle’s words are not as gentle or even speaking to the same exact point as Nouwen’s. He is issuing a warning, but the ground is similar, I think. John also speaks to us of the ultimate inadequacy of misdirected love. The love is misdirected because it aims toward the wrong thing, and it is misdirected because it is that clinging, needful thing that we often call love because our words are imprecise and we are so good a lying about our own intentions.

I think I am coming to understand this truth more fully. I have much more to learn and much more to do. God is a good friend. He waits patiently for me. I am grateful for that.

Nouwen on incarnation

Henri Nouwen reflects on the nature of love and humanity in his wonderful little book Adam, which is about the man he cared for at L’Arche.

Adam’s humanity was not diminished by his disabilities. Adam’s humanity was a full humanity, in which the fullness of love became visible for me, and for others who grew to know him. Yes, I began to love Adam with a love that transcended most of the feelings, emotions, and passions that I had associated with love among people. Adam couldn’t say, “I love you,” he couldn’t embrace spontaneously or express gratitude in words. Still I dare to say we loved each other with a love that was as enfleshed as any love, and was at the same time truly spiritual. We were friends, brothers, bonded in our hearts. …

This experience cannot be understood by logical explanation, but rather in and through the spiritual bonding of two very different people who discovered each other as completely equal in the heart of God. From my heart I could offer him some care that he really needed, and from his heart he blessed me with a pure and lasting gift of himself.

Every time I read Nouwen carefully, I am reminded of a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?

Like Nouwen, I am prone to think of humanity in terms of intellect and feeling. Our humanity, my gut tells me, is based somehow in the more evolved parts of our cerebral cortex. But such ideas suffer from the great fault of making the hallmark of humanity the things that I most value about myself.

Isn’t this a form of spiritual pride?

Adam with all his profound disabilities was fully human. For all the wonderful things I can do with my brain and my brain can do for me, he may be closer to God than I am.

The biggest difference between Adam and me is that Adam wore his disabilities on the outside where everyone could see them. Some of mine are obvious right away, but most of my more pronounced disabilities take time to discover. I am more skilled at hiding and denying my brokenness than Adam was.

When a friend came to visit Nouwen at L’Arche one day, he asked why the great writer and teacher was wasting his time by caring for Adam. Nouwen noted that his friend could not see Adam as the incarnated face of God. He could only see the disabilities, not the man.

For Nouwen, Adam was a teacher.

And while I, the so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was like me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.

Questions from above and below

Henri Nouwen writes about his friend Adam, who had profound physical and mental disabilities:

Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see that these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you into prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”